Sometimes, science goes full supervillain. From remote-controlled mice to dragonfly drones, scientists have been tinkering with animals' brains to hijack their actions. But it's not just because they like to let loose with a malevolent cackle every so often — it's to help humanity. We swear.
Stimulating parts of the brain to trigger certain actions is nothing new — brain surgeons do it on human patients all the time. When removing a brain tumor, for instance, surgeons will make sure they're not cutting an important piece of tissue by stimulating the area with electrodes and seeing what the patient does. If they stop speaking or call everything they see a chicken, you know that you should stay away from it.
Brain science is one reason researchers have created remote-controlled mice. In their experiment, they genetically modified the brains of mice so that specific neurons were sensitive to temperature, then injected those neurons with magnetic nanoparticles. Then they applied special magnets to heat those nanoparticles and make the neurons fire. They did this in three different parts of the brain, and found that they could successfully make the mice run, turn, or stop. This wasn't in pursuit of an army of robo-rodents. Instead, their success was an important step in helping patients with neurological disorders avoid invasive surgery.
This Drone Is A Little Buggy
Although it's not the main goal, the successful development of a dragonfly drone may also lead to neurological therapies. To create the bio-drone they call DragonflEye, engineers at Draper Laboratory genetically modified a dragonfly to have light-sensitive genes in insect equivalent of its spinal cord. That way, they can control the bugs using pulses of light transmitted using special structures kind of like fiber optics, but more flexible, without harming its other neurons.
The engineers hope that these bionic dragonflies could fix a big problem in tiny drones — namely, battery life. You can only make batteries so small, and that limits how far and long a small drone can fly. They affixed the dragonfly with sensors that they hope could one day let it collect data in places where people can't go. But in addition to that, their light-based gene technology could also help people with spinal-cord injuries who suffer from reduced mobility. If it takes a robot bug to do that, we suppose we're on board.